European Societies: Fusion or Fission?

By Thomas P. Boje; Bart Van Steenbergen et al. | Go to book overview

11

Nationalism: ethnicity and gender

Sheila Allen

INTRODUCTION

Almost all writing on nation or nationalism begins on a cautionary note. This chapter is no exception. The vocabulary is full of pitfalls and the distinction between myth and social structures, processes and relations of power are not made as frequently as might be expected. The social functions of myth have long been recognized and analysed by anthropologists and sociologists as part of understanding how people make sense of their world and how they legitimate their actions. The analysis of the importance of myth in creating and sustaining the idea of nation and its significance to nationalism is, however, only one part of the task of understanding and explaining them. Both terms are used for what on closer analysis are shown to be different phenomena in terms of causes, consequences and meanings. Moreover, unless existing alternatives to nation and nationalism are considered, whether as narratives, belief systems or value orientations, our analysis is not likely to be very adequate.

There was undoubtedly a dominant, though largely implicit, tendency among mid-twentieth-century Western sociologists to equate society with the nation-state (see Bauman 1973). Few went as far as Smith in claiming that

The nation-state is the almost undisputed foundation of world order, the main object of individual loyalties, the chief definer of a man's [sic] identity… It permeates our outlook so much that we hardly question its legitimacy today. [It] has become an indispensable prop in our thinking… When we talk of 'society' today we refer implicitly to nations.

(Smith 1971:2-3)

The elision of society and nation or nation-state was never without challenge, especially by those working in the area of development and by Marxist scholars. 1 However, it is only in the 1980s and 1990s that this has again become the subject of substantial debate among sociologists and political scientists. Although in the 1990s 'nation' and 'nationalism' are terms in daily use, clarifying them conceptually to analyse their structures and meaning requires account to be taken of the ethnic narratives in which they have become embedded and their intermeshing with gendered processes. In social and political theory the frameworks elucidating nation and nationalism show a marked neglect of gender relations as central to understanding these forms of human organization and a growing tendency to employ an over-determined

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